What are pure vowels and why talk about it?
I’m always drawn back to things I have read in singing treatises of centuries past, and one of the most frequently encountered is the admonishment to clarity of pronunciation. I find that people who are reluctant to make friends with opera frequently use as the excuse for their distaste that you can’t understand the words (regardless of the language being sung in). Generally speaking, these opera naysayers are people who enjoy pop vocal music of all sorts. Though I’m by no means expert in the realm of pop music, I can’t find the diction anymore distinguishable in pop music, and it is arguably, at least to me, far worse. I think back to the gift given me last year of a Radiohead album (given me by a classical singer who is a genuine enthusiast for the dynamic group). I could barely discern 10% of the text on a first listening. And this in vocal music which rarely climbs out of the range of an octave, much less the two plus octaves required of an opera singer. So what is it these anti-opera folk are hearing as poor diction?
Over the holidays, we had a great variety of music appreciators in our house for parties, from Met performers to choral giggers to avid listeners to poets. All are concerned with words and communication through the medium of the voice and through words. All are concerned that the words be clear. But one young collaborative pianist asked me whether I thought one should learn the text of a song or role first, or the music? I replied without pause that I think a great singer learns the music first, and then the words. Since the general method encountered in conservatories is the reverse, why would I make such a reckless statement?
Consider the most famous libretti by the most famous opera librettist of all time, Pietro Metastasio. Top of the list would be Alessandro nell’Indie, Artaserse, Didone abbandonata and L‘Olimpiade. Not counting librettos derived from Metastasio’s, there are at least thirty settings of each of these works (and most of Metastasio’s other works were set nearly as many times). So, if we are learning Hasse’s version of one of these operas, as opposed to Galuppi’s or Gluck’s, what is it we are learning and attempting to express? Are we learning and expressing the libretto the same way again and over again? Most certainly not. We are learning to express the text of the opera, which is to say the music by Hasse, Gluck or Galuppi (or thirty more). Metastasio’s work has become the subtext.
The argument extends even further if we consider the care with which talented vocal composers set words for desired effects. Great composers of every century have worked with great artists to achieve the performance of their works, and a Handel, for instance, would work with the best singers when possible. If we study how Handel wrote, it becomes clear that if he wanted a gentler, more flutey effect up in the passaggio of a singer’s voice, he set the note on “u” or “o.” If he wanted brassy brightness, he set the same note on “ah” or “i [ee].” This quite apart from the kind of vocal acrobatics (or lack of same) he might use to highlight a text. Therefore I contend that if we are not striving to sing the pure words, the argument is to be made that we are not performing the music. We are performing something else (and, usually, what I find we are performing is the love for our own voices!)
On closer examination, good vocal composers make these distinctions in all sorts of classical repertoire. We must bear in mind that they were creating settings for singers who were trained to deliver a good two octaves, and, until the past century, I can’t find that singers were taught to compromise vowels. It is difficult to make the same argument for most popular song, because its vocal requirements (span, or tessitura) are usually much more narrow than that required of classical singers.
If we are not expressing the words, then are we really performing the song, or aria or role? Of course, something could be said for creating a timbre that is expressive of the music at the cost of purity of pronunciation, and here we get into an interesting set of choices between the demands of the words and the demands of the musical character, not to speak of the demands of the line: does it want to be smooth, or sharp? How much vocal pressure should we exert in response to the words before we have compromised the musical line?
Is singing not an endlessly debatable activity?